In his terse, four-paragraph letter firing James Comey as head of the FBI -- a firing that supposedly had nothing to do with Comey's investigation into collusion with Russia -- President Trump made a curious assertion that will echo through history:
"While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the department."
Those "three acquittals" have become central to the scandal that is now playing out. In an interview with NBC, Trump says that two of the incidents occurred in phone calls between the two men, one of which Trump initiated. In short, by Trump's own account, you've got the president of the United States, worried that he might be under investigation, calling up the head of the FBI and demanding to be told that he is not. That alone, in any other administration, would be a startling confession.
According to Trump, the other occasion came during a private White House dinner between the two men. As Trump describes it, Comey "wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House."
Comey, through associates, confirms that part of the story. The dinner in question occurred back in January, seven days after Trump's inauguration. In Comey's version, he wants to stay on as FBI director, but he is asked to pay a price. He is asked to pledge his loyalty to Trump, and he demurs, pledging to give him only honesty.
Later in the dinner, Trump again asks Comey to pledge his loyalty. As director of the FBI, Comey knows he cannot legally or ethically do that. His job is to remain politically independent, sworn to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but to pledge his loyalty to no man and no party. So he again demurs, pledging only to be honest with Trump. They settle on the term "honest loyalty" to describe their relationship.
In Comey's eyes, that refusal four months ago to kiss the royal ring led directly to his firing on Tuesday. Trump was demanding a quid pro quo -- in exchange for loyalty, he gets to keep his job -- and Comey refused. The Trump White House totally rejects that account, claiming that the subject of loyalty never came up in that dinner.
That puts us in a bit of a quandary, because it forces us to choose between two conflicting accounts of an important event to which there are no other witnesses. As Trump put it just a few minutes ago:
So who's telling the truth? I think we already know the answer. On one hand, we can choose to believe a habitual, even obsessive liar who constantly remolds reality to suit his own needs. On the other, we have a man whose judgment can at times be questioned but who throughout his career has demonstrated an obsessive need to tell the truth.
I don't need to attach names to those descriptions. You know which is which already.
We also have corroborating evidence. We have Trump spokesman and confidante KellyAnne Conway earlier this week, justifying the Comey firing by saying that the president “expects people who are serving in his administration to be loyal to the country and to be loyal to the administration.”
Again, by law and duty, the FBI director cannot be loyal to an administration, and cannot be pressured to be loyal to an administration. That is simply not acceptable.
We also have Trump's own words. Look again at the paragraph from the letter firing Comey, and more particularly at that word "nevertheless." Basically, it's Trump announcing that "even though you've told me I'm not under investigation, I'm going to fire you anyway." It draws a clear link between continued employment and the investigation.
In an interview this week with Lester Holt of NBC, Trump repeatedly expresses his frustration that the Russian investigation hasn't ended. "It should be over with, in my opinion, should have
been over with a long time ago," he tells Holt. "Cause all it is, is an excuse (for Democrats losing the election)."
Then he goes on:
"I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won."
He fired Comey to make this "made-up story" go away. I know of no other way to interpret those words.
Trump defenders and apologists argue that his ploy hasn't worked, that public scrutiny and internal FBI outrage are now so intense that the Justice Department wouldn't dare try to undermine the investigation. That's probably true and it certainly doesn't matter. A botched attempt to use the powers of the presidency to intimidate law enforcement and short-circuit an investigation is still an attempt to intimidate law enforcement and short-circuit an investigation.
If any other president of either party had been caught so red-handed, impeachment proceedings would already be underway. If it were Barack Obama, Jason Chaffetz and Trey Gowdy would already be hammering together the gallows on Pennsylvania Avenue. Only the collapse of public expectations for presidential behavior under Trump, combined with blind partisan loyalty, has so far allowed Trump to slide.
And that in itself is sign of how troubled our republic has become.